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The Long Winters - "Ultimatum" EP (Barsuk)

19 December 2005

JOHN RODERICK & Co. have
done it again. Two years after releasing the triumphant LP, When I Pretend to Fall, THE LONG WINTERS have made an EP on which all four studio songs (the additional two cuts are live) are of album quality. Less energized than When I Pretend to Fall, the “Ultimatum” EP is however highly impressive due to its sincerity, warmth, passion, musical achievement and Roderick’s fantastic singing. Yes, his voice does at times sound a bit like MICHAEL STIPE, especially on “Delicate Hands,” but that’s so minor an issue it doesn’t even qualify as a quibble.

The band’s web site says the record is “gilded with string quartets and analog synths, but at its core are four adventurous songs about disaster. Electric guitar takes a backseat to toy keyboards and trashed drum-loops as shuttles crash, lovers drown, and machines take over the Earth.”

That description sounds bleak. But the music, while often mid-tempo or slower, conveys a sense of hope—even if distant—and is filled with wonder and a sense of humility about the limits we all face. There is no shortage of frustration, even disaster, in these songs but in Roderick’s voice the specter of hope always stays alive, like burning embers that refuse to die.

The band on this release gives the piano and strings more prominence. The opener, “The Commander Thinks Aloud,” begins expansively with a plodding piano and soon Roderick’s voice assuredly enters. Though the song is said to be about the Columbia space shuttle disaster that killed seven astronauts in 2003, one can’t help but hear amidst the melancholy a sense of salvation. Trilling sounds appear unexpectedly then vanish like meteors catching up to the shuttle before shooting past it.

But any cause for optimism is obliterated when near the end of the song Roderick repeats “The crew compartment’s breaking up.” Even before then we are cued: “The radio is on. Houston knows the score.” At this point, so does the listener.

On titular song “Ultimatum,” we are treated to a romantic, folky, country-influenced song that evokes autumn (as does the album’s art work). Again, there is more about the stars, space, and all that lies out yonder. “My arms miss you. My hands miss you. The stars sing. I’ve got their song in my head.”

Though the lyrics to the songs on this EP can be cryptic, they are anything but on “Everything is Talking,” a condemnation of our obsession with technology, the anonymity of modern life and its
shallowness. A world weary and slightly woozy Roderick half sings/half complains: “Nameless friends all know my name”....”My new friends have messages. They reach me wherever I am.”.....”Our new (TV) set is a good set. It’s a big set, a really big set.” We hear a “doo doo doo doo” that sounds half human and half machine. And the chorus repeats mechanically: “Everything is talking, everything.” Though this song is not the EP’s best, it’s the one that’ll likely stay in your head.

The best song here may be “Delicate Hands,” another piece that begins with a piano. The compact drums chug ahead economically, pitter-pattering like galloping horses. The guitar work is intricate and amazingly fluid. But we also hear a simple but highly effective descending guitar line as well as a prominent flute melody. Roderick’s singing peak on this song but is never more moving than when we hear him plaintively cry: “The last time we crossed I held you under wanting to feel you, wanting to breath and I thought you wanted to feel like breathing.”

Stay tuned for a new album next year that promises to be a real treat.

 

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